Passenger trains run from Bristol Temple Meads to Severn Beach via nine local stations. The line carries little freight traffic, with most of the heavy freight traffic to Avonmouth Docks being routed via the Henbury loop through Filton. The line has been highlighted by Thomas Cook as one of the scenic lines of Europe.
It ran from a station known as "Clifton" to Avonmouth, via Sea Mills and Shirehampton. Clifton station was situated in Hotwells, west of Bristol city centre between the Clifton Suspension Bridge and Bridge Valley Road.
As built the railway was isolated from the rest of the national network, and because of poor finances of the company, plans to extend the railway into the city centre and Temple Meads station were not realised for several more years.
The Great Western Railway and the Midland Railway decided to jointly fund a branch to connect the BPRP to both of their networks. The branch left the GWR South Wales line at Narroways Hill Junction, just north of the existing station at Stapleton Road. The branch was joined just beyond Narroways Hill by a line which left the Midland main line at Kingswood Junction, just west of Fishponds station. The first section through Montpelier to Clifton Down opened on 1 October 1874. It was quite an achievement, running though cuttings, and tunnels and over embankments and viaducts, the longest and highest as the train travels between Montpelier and Redland.
The greatest engineering feature of the branch was a mile-long tunnel underneath Clifton Down. The section through the tunnel from Clifton Down station to Sneyd Park Junction, where it connected to the Bristol Port Railway, opened to goods traffic in 1877 and to passenger trains on 1 September 1885.
As a result of this BPRP Clifton station was renamed Hotwells. The section of track from here to Sneyd Park Junction survived until 1922 when it was demolished to build the A4 Bristol Portway.
The residents of Redland successfully petitioned for a station and in April 1897 one was opened close to the Lovers Walk bridge. The ticket office was on the bridge rather than the platform. St Andrews Road station was opened in March 1917 to serve the munitions factory there. Finally Severn Beach station opened in April 1922.
The line has been substantially rationalized, as with many branch lines in the UK. There are now extensive sections of single track, although in all locations where this was not originally the case, space has been left so that the second track could in theory be re-instated. The only sections at which trains can pass are on the main line between Temple Meads and Narroways Hill Junction and in the passing loops at Clifton Down and Avonmouth. All stations except Temple Meads are unstaffed, and it is only possible to purchase a ticket for immediate travel after boarding the train as presently no stations are provided with Ticket Vending Machines.
Passenger services are operated by First Great Western using Class 143, Class 150, Class 153 or Class 158 diesel multiple units. These trains are two-man-operation, as the guard is required to operated the passenger doors as well as serve as a ticket-issuing conductor, which can be a source of delays, as well as potentially a means of losing revenue. The plans for the line (see below) include a possibility of running trains with the driver opening the doors. In this case, the idea would be to free up the guard to simply check and issue tickets.
In the year 2005/6, 375,000 passenger journeys were officially known to have been made on the line. The main destination, other than Temple Meads, is Clifton Down, partly due to the large shopping centre immediately outside the station on Whiteladies Road.
The route has been used as a diversionary route for trains travelling north from Bristol when the normal route is closed for engineering work. The freight-only Henbury Loop connects Avonmouth with Bristol Parkway station on the London-South Wales and Bristol-Birmingham routes.
On Monday to Fridays, 11 trains ran from Bristol Temple Meads just as far as Avonmouth with a further seven continuing all the way to Severn Beach, only in the early mornings and evenings. A connecting bus provided through journeys from Avonmouth to Severn Beach during the daytime. During the morning, two trains provided a service approximately every 40 minutes, with an hourly daytime service using only one unit. As only one train was available to run weekday evening services, when all journeys ran to Severn Beach, the frequency of services was reduced because of the longer distance to Severn Beach. On Saturdays all 16 services ran to Severn Beach, using two trains to provide an hourly service. There was no Sunday service.
Services to Severn Beach will be reduced overall, with only one train every two hours Mondays to Fridays, as opposed to the current service provided by a bus every hour connecting with every train. However, overall journey time is shortened by 8 minutes by removing the need to change at Avonmouth. The bus continues to run on Saturdays to continue to provide, together with the through trains, one journey per hour to/from Severn Beach. For the first time in recent history, there will be a Sunday service, with hourly departures between 10am and 6pm from Bristol to Avonmouth, running until September only. St Andrew's Road and Severn Beach itself continue to have no Sunday service.